Jim Harbaugh likes to keep his ducks in a tight, efficient row at Michigan.
It’s a kinetic chain of sorts, a phrase used in 2016 to describe the way the Wolverines operate on a day-to-day basis. Everyone has an impact, all of the time and everywhere.
Granted, some of the names change and some of the duties expand and contract. Harbaugh has built a world-class staff in Ann Arbor.
This year, Harbaugh’s third as UM coach, will feature Jay Harbaugh as the running backs coach — a new move from tight ends coach, and special teams, which he’ll still oversee — and Pep Hamilton as the passing-game coordinator.
Greg Frey, who was the offensive coordinator at Indiana, has returned for Round 2 with Michigan; he was an offensive line coach for Rich Rodriguez from 2008 to 2010. This time, he’ll focus his efforts on the run game, tight ends, and tackles.
If anything’s certain with Michigan, it’s that Harbaugh will continue to align and realign his staff as often as needed. He’ll even hire analysts and confidants, just for the sake of being thorough. So far, he’s cycled through a handful of helpers — helpers who’ve moved on to other positions with other programs.
With that said, these recent moves and additions, while important, probably aren’t permanent — but they were necessary in order for the Wolverines to move closer to national contention.
Michigan’s rushing game kick-started itself, to an extent, during a 10-3 finish in 2016. It’s not “there” yet, but it’s on its way. Following the spring game, sophomore running back Chris Evans said that Jay Harbaugh sees the game through the lens of a “smaller” back, whereas former running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley — a Michigan legend — viewed the game through the eyes of a “bigger” carrier.
The Wolverines have enough talent in the backfield, so Jay Harbaugh shouldn’t have too much trouble coaching his players. They’re young, but the core of Michigan’s backfield has been around long enough to know the lay of the land. Along with Karan Higdon, who’ll be a junior, and Kareem Walker, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore, the Wolverines have speed, power and shiftiness at their disposal.
In conjunction with Greg Frey, Jay Harbaugh will have to find ways to further expand a rushing attack that scored 41 touchdowns and averaged 212 yards and some change per game in 2016.
They also have fullbacks such as Khalid Hill, a fifth-year veteran and one of the most complete players in the game, and Henry Poggi, another fifth-year guy who loves to get dirty.
Despite averaging roughly 150 yards per game in 2016, Indiana had a well-rounded offense under Frey, whose Hoosiers posted the No. 3-ranked total offense in the Big Ten following a 6-7 season — they averaged just a fraction more than 425 yards per game, just to be clear (and about one yard more than Michigan in 2016).
Piece all of that together with the level of talent and hands-on coaching with Jay Harbaugh and Frey, and things look OK for the Wolverines, who could end up with another lethal offense — one capable of eclipsing 2016’s average of 40 points per game — with Hamilton orchestrating the calls through the air.
“Pep brings so much energy,” Jim Harbaugh said during a Big Ten conference call this past spring (via Big Ten.org). “We’ve worked together before. I remember it, but hadn’t remembered just how much energy he brings; it’s really unmatched.”
“(Hamilton is) at the highest, highest level. Eleven on a scale of 10 — to quote Spinal Tap right now.”
Back in 2011 and 2012, Jim Harbaugh entrusted Hamilton with offensive play-calling and quarterback-related decisions at Stanford. Things worked out during that relationship, one projected on the field through former Cardinal superstar Andrew Luck — the most complete quarterback Harbaugh has ever coached, per Harbaugh.
So there’s that whole connection, the energy thing, and the fact that Hamilton is all business, according to sophomore receiver Eddie McDoom. Hamilton’s influence, he said, has the potential to thrust Michigan to new heights — literally.
Hamilton wants to air-out the ball on a regular basis and pile up the yardage far beyond the 20 touchdowns (18 thrown by Speight) and 212 yards per game from this past season — the No. 7-ranked passing offense in the Big Ten.
With that said, Michigan’s passing game could “blow up the scoreboard” with Hamilton, McDoom said during a recent youth camp at UM.
A major addition, Hamilton’s presence could be what Michigan needs to really establish an elite passing game. With Jay Harbaugh and Frey combining ideas, the run game could potentially get over the hump, too. Frey’s expertise with tackles and tight ends should help further expand the reach of the ground and air schemes, too.
“My history had been a shotgun spread,” Frey said in May, via the recently retired Mark Snyder, formerly of the Detroit Free Press. “I know coach Drevno had been at Southern Cal, but he was more of a huddle (guy). So when you’re talking about bringing ideas together about what you do, my past has been two-back, no tight end and 11 personnel.
“They’re coming in here with three tight ends, two tight ends and heavy power game. We’ve got a couple quarterbacks in coach Harbaugh and coach Hamilton, and they love tight ends.”
Of course, the backbone of the Wolverines has gone unchanged — that’s because their defense, coordinated by Don Brown and coached in the trenches by D-line coach Greg Mattison, doesn’t need any tweaks or improvements.
That’s what happens when you finish with the No. 1-ranked total defense in back-to-back years.
Michigan 2017 coaching staff (does not include analysts/other hired hands):
Head coach: Jim Harbaugh; OC/OL Tim Drevno; PGC Pep Hamilton; RB/ST Jay Harbaugh; DC Don Brown; DL Greg Mattison; LB/ST Chris Partridge; DB/S Brian Smith; DB/CB Mike Zordich
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